Forget everyone who says the future of video gaming is the open world sandbox. It’s already happening. Open worlds allow players to traverse a game’s entire landscape. Levels can be placed inside of these worlds as dungeons or missions, but open worlds allow and encourage players to go anywhere and do anything they please, whether it has to do with the game’s main plot or not.
The following are 10 of the best open world games. If you like one, consider trying out one of the others listed here. To keep this from becoming a list of Elder Scrolls titles, let’s set one ground rule: each franchise only gets one game.
Just Cause 2 is the class clown of the group. In fact, it makes more sense when you pronounce it “Just Cuz.” While there’s a plot about hero Rico Rodriguez overthrowing a dictatorial South Pacific government led by riffs on James Bond villains, your progress is measured in the amount of chaos you create. It’s a perfect invitation to play with the game’s very loose interpretation of physics, rocketing cars down mountainsides or flying the entirety of Panau’s 400 square miles using your endless supply of hover-parachutes. Just Cause 2 is the best physics playground on the list.
A sort of Grand Theft Auto-lite, but focused on Hong Kong action movies, Sleeping Dogs has one of the better plots on this list. Sleeping Dogs fills its neon streets and dirty back alleys with extra mysteries for hero Wei Shen to solve, as well as extra characters, dance clubs, karaoke, drag races, and complex criminal back stories to learn. The gameplay evokes the best of John Woo’s slow-motion action epics, combining a realistic parkour system, surprisingly robust martial arts gameplay, challenging chase scenes, and fast-paced gunplay. It’s the world of Sleeping Dogs that takes center stage, creating a stunning sense of place where sometimes it’s just as enjoyable to walk the outdoor markets in a rainstorm as it is to display your drunken boxing.
Far Cry 2 is controversial because of a series of unforgiving design choices built to punish any mistakes made by the player. While Far Cry 3 would introduce a lush Pacific island landscape and Far Cry 4 would deliver a dreamy Himalayan paradise, these later iterations built better worlds at the sacrifice of consequence and story. In Far Cry 2, a single firefight could include you suffering a malaria attack, losing your gun, picking up a jammed weapon, resetting your dislocated thumb in order to clear the weapon’s breech, getting shot down because this all takes too long, being rescued by a unique character who might sacrifice themselves on your behalf, and then deciding whether it was mercy to make your friend’s death quick. It was an unrelenting game that gave the player unprecedented choice, and then selected brutal and poignant moments to take that choice away. It also contains one of the best endings in gaming, one that undermines the warfare that precedes it and asks piercing questions about the nature of violent gaming itself.
The newest entry on this list, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a powerful and emotional high fantasy yarn. Choosing race and gender has never mattered in gaming as much as it does in the Dragon Age series – it can completely shape your story and the challenges you face. Even your character’s attitude toward religion takes center stage in the plot of Inquisition. It boasts some of the most rewarding exploration mechanics in an open world game. It also balances the increasingly overwhelming collect-everything filler of the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry games with more than just increased experience points. You get the XP, but you also uncover lost stories and histories. Some are vast and epic, some are private and personal. Some even change the relationships you enjoy with your closest allies. You become the explorer not just of a landscape, but of forgotten lives lost to war. You become an archaeologist of moments soon to be erased from the memory of a world. The true treasure in Inquisition isn’t the XP or the trinkets you pick up. Its treasure is the bittersweet and heartbreaking narratives your exploration uncovers.
Red Dead Redemption is a powerful blend of motion capture acting, exquisite gameplay design, and a budget that allowed developer Rockstar to say yes to an incredible number of ideas. Rockstar’s bravest decision lies in the desolate beauty of its early 1900s Southwest environments. Most open worlds seek to pack content, landmarks, threats, encounters, hidden places, and collectibles at regular intervals to keep the player from zoning out. Instead, Red Dead Redemption was perfectly contented to let you ride unabated until the sound of your own horse’s hooves lulled you into the landscape’s poetry. It made you a part of that poetry by regularly denying the player shortcuts. It asked patience of players at a time when most video games were focusing on becoming faster and more gimmicky. You had to match this open world’s pace – an unexpected choice from the makers of Grand Theft Auto.
Outcast (the video game, not the terrible Nicolas Cage movie) is the earliest entry here. A 1999 Belgian title that fell through the cracks, it sees protagonist Cutter Slade transported to an otherworldly realm. The player has to learn about the creatures who live here and topple a military dictatorship that keeps them servile. Outcast stresses stealth and sabotage. Actual gunfights approximated a third-person shooter’s version of “bullet hell” games and players could quickly become overwhelmed by coordinated enemy A.I. that remains superior to much of what’s on the market even today. Good Old Games just re-mastered it last year:
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series is as immature as their Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire are mature. The leaders in expanding what the open world can do, Rockstar’s flagship series isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Controversies over the series abound, but the most recent game boasts an incredible level of polish and a world that feels truly lived in. One cannot ignore the depth of the city they’ve built, nor how cleverly this latest iteration has incorporated co-operative gameplay modes. Even if it’s thematically flawed at times, it’s a rare design accomplishment at both the gameplay and world-building levels.
With apologies to the Fallout series, the standout in post-apocalyptic open worlds remains the relentlessly frightening Russian horror game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. In most of these games, nighttime is only set dressing, but getting stranded in the wrong place in the dark in Shadow of Chernobyl counts as one of the most overwhelmingly frightening experiences in gaming. Its sequels would stabilize the game engine and expand the world of the Zone itself, but they would also make the game’s world feel busier and safer. The first entry’s creeping atmosphere and slow-burn plot remain unparalleled. Even the game’s bugs seemed to accentuate the reality-breaking in-game Anomaly system. Mistranslations felt like part of the game and even fed into the player-character’s own amnesia about the place he’s in and why he’s there. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is flawed, but it’s also the most surreal open world experience you can find. It’s as close to catching lightning in a bottle as gaming gets.
What is there left to say about Minecraft? The open world system that lets you destroy and rebuild the environment has seen 1:1 scale recreations of entire countries, as well as complex computing systems built inside the game itself. User-made modifications (or mods) include everything from aesthetic changes to whole new crafting systems. Some mods even allow players to hide worlds within worlds inside the game. Minecraft argues there’s a huge market for peaceful games built around creativity instead of death and destruction. In fact, Minecraft is so adaptable, most other game genres have been recreated inside Minecraft itself. Everything from Pacman to Mario Kart has been reprogrammed inside Minecraft, while whole new game types have been invented based around building and art competitions.
Talk about games to get lost inside. Skyrim allows players to become legendary fantasy heroes who become master fighters, magicians, thieves, and assassins while fighting Dragons and either saving or dooming an empire. It also allows you to ignore all those things, trek straight into the woods, and become a nomadic alchemist who turns her nose up at the thousands of quests every passerby keeps trying to foist on her.
Skyrim remains relevant as an experience years after its release because of its modding scene, which allows players to personally tweak their experiences. Do you want Skyrim to become a survival game about fighting the brutal cold as your character starves? There’s a user-made mod for that. Do you want Skyrim to give you command of an army of followers who do all the hard work you’d rather not? There’s a mod for that. Do you want to change every tree and blade of grass in Skyrim to look like something different? You’ll find mods for that. Skyrim enjoys the scope and skill of a user community willing to rewrite, recode, and transform the game into any variation you want. This makes every user’s experience unique. Conversations with other players aren’t usually about the game’s plot. More often, they concern how each user tailors the world through mods. Every player enjoys his or her personalized version of an already fantastic base game.
Honorable Mentions: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag…Batman: Arkham City…Don’t Starve…Fallout 3…Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning…Mount & Blade: Warband…Risen…The Witcher series…X3: Terran Conflict.
Which games have you tried? Is your favorite on the list?